New York

Michèle Blondel 

Elga Wimmer

For nearly a decade, the French artist Michèle Blondel has been developing the various elements of what has become a unified, installation-oriented, sculptural project. Blondel herself blows precious Baccarat crystal into exquisite phallic and otherwise sexually suggestive forms, and strategically places them in the chapels and choirs of medieval French churches. Hers is less a button-pushing attack on the odious politics of the Church than it is a playful uncovering of the erotic and sadistic underpinnings of Catholic ritual and dogma. Featuring a representative selection of Blondel’s work from 1985 until the present, this show provided a well-rounded view of the artist’s consistently provocative response to her own religious and cultural heritage.

Falling somewhere between the sanctioned orgasmic vision of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 1645–52, and the intentional blasphemy of self-stigmatization in Madonna’s video, Like a Prayer, 1989, Blondel’s work consistently engages the issues of sadomasochism and eroticism in religion with a sculptural sensibility that is best characterized as jouissance. This is subtly manifested in the intimate series of devotional tableaux entitled “Mes Petites Confesses” (My little confessors, 1990). In Ma Petite Confesse, Nr.1 , a priest’s stole is arranged with purple crystal vials blown into phallic and breastlike shapes. In Ma Petite Confesse, No.3, antique baby shoes hang above an open 17th-century book featuring an illustration of a nude girl, which is itself flanked on either side by a delicate crystal penis—here an erotic childhood reverie is poignantly and convincingly equated with religious devotion.

Blondel examines, and to an extent reclaims, a constellation of Catholic ritual in her work, always tempering her focus on sensuality with a decidedly light touch. With the carefully hung communion dresses in Communiante (Communicant, 1987), or the priestly vestments strewn on a wooden pew in God is Love (1992), Blondel evokes the body only to replace it with crystal surrogates, objects that are at once intrusively phallic and fragile. The traditional veneration of relics is gently rendered absurd in Sweet Baby Penis, 1989, which features a giant crystal phallus wrapped in chicken wire and enclosed in a makeshift, wooden reliquary. For Blondel, the contrast between her use of crystal, a precious material, and the “forbidden” forms it assumes figures her questioning of the division between the sacred and the profane upon which the existence of the Church depends.

Though Blondel points to the overwhelming phallocentrism of Catholicism, hers is not simply a studied, feminist critique of gender politics in religion, but a meditation on the persistent feminine presence throughout the history of Catholicism. The notion of Virgin Birth is humorously challenged by Immaculate Conception, 1990, in which the viewer is invited to squirt semenlike antiwrinkle cream into the small opening of a wall-mounted, vaginal receptacle, a virtually impossible task. Blondel replaces traditional, body-denying piety with an unmistakable eroticism, no less spiritual, in Mon bel ami, baise moi et baise moi encore (My beautiful friend, kiss/fuck me and kiss/fuck me again, 1985). The passionate words of the title, written by Louise Labée in 1566, are progressively etched into five small, stone slabs, each of which holds a solid but transparent phallus through which the message may be read. Here Blondel has created the perfect tool—combination dildo and looking glass—with which to retrieve a lost history of female mystics who, like the artist, have embraced a more expansive notion of spiritual love than the modern Church might care to recognize.

Jenifer P. Borum